Cultural Values and Journalism Ethics: The Nigerian Experience
Chinenye Nwabueze, Ph.D
Department of Mass Communication
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Nigeria
Culture consists of the totality of values, beliefs and norms that shape the lifestyle of a people. Socio-cultural values spell out esteemed life style and routine aspirations cherished by a society. At the core of any culture is a system of values which defines what people live for and how they live. This paper adopts the analytical approach in examining the link between value systems of a society, news values which determine what is reported by journalists, and adherence to ethical tenets in journalism practice in Nigeria. It establishes that the Nigerian journalist exists in a society whose value system seems to glorify variants of corruption, and that this leaves the journalist ever battling with conflicting values—negative value system of the society vis-à-vis professional (and ethical) values. The paper agues for value re-orientation, journalism training, meaningful remuneration/welfare package, among others, as springboards to realistic quest to curb media corruption brought about by extraneous societal pressures on journalists.
Key words: Culture, value system, news values, journalism ethics.
Journalism profession in Nigeria is not practiced in isolation. Journalists exist in specific societies and are influenced in one way or the other by cultural forces, aspirations and convictions that make up the society. The mass media have in fact been described as cultural institutions through which cultural products flow in an increasingly fluid way (Murdock and Golding, 2005: 68). As Murdock and Golding (2005) have observed cultural products do not only flow between and across the media, but media workers are also influenced by cultural forces within the society they operate, in the discharge of their duties. This postulation is buttressed by the fact that institutions in any society exist in a social matrix, that is an interactional relationship which ensures that what affects one institution has a ripple effect on other institutions in that society. This interactional and mutually inter-dependent nature of structures in the society is premised on the functionalism theory which according to Udoakah (2007) personifies the society as an organism which is made up of a system of interdependent parts that variously serve functions that ensure the survival of the system. In the same vein, these institutions have an interactional relationship with the culture of the society within which they exist.
Culture encompasses the totality of human behaviour, life style, beliefs, customs, values and value system that shape any society. The nature of any society or distinct group of people is given expression through the way of life of persons identified with that society or group. What people value gives meaning to their culture. The value system largely determines how a people live, think, act, what they cherish, what they wish to be associated with, and what they strive to achieve in order to be recognized in the society. Socio-cultural values spell out esteemed life style and routine expectations that give cultural identity to a people. Ethics constitutes one of the indices for ensuring professionalism in the practice of journalism in any society. Without sincere adherence to the need to decipher what is good from what is bad in the line of duty, as spelt out in a professional code of ethics, journalism practice could lose the bite which is essential in effectively watch-dogging the society. However, the value system of a specific society plays positive or negative roles as the case may be, in determining the adherence to ethical standards by journalists.
In Nigeria, corruption has eaten deep into the value system and moral fabric of the society. To a large extent corruption has been glorified by certain cultures, thereby giving value to activities, aspirations and pursuits that should have otherwise been condemned. The Nigerian society is such that a person who is known today as an unemployed idle person having little or nothing to make ends meet, suddenly becomes wealthy tomorrow and nobody asks questions about the source of his wealth. Instead, he is recognized with chieftaincy titles; he makes contributions to political office holders, builds churches and gives scholarship to students. There have been instances where even known convicts of various crimes have ended up as political god fathers. People no longer want to grow gradually or create wealth gradually, but rather aspire to become wealthy by all means because that is what society seems to glorify. Today’s journalist in Nigeria seems to be caught up in this scenario.
Mfumbusa (2008: 140) has asserted that “media professionals in Africa operate in a context marked by the politics and culture of the larger society that are essentially dishonest and corrupt.” Mfumbusa’s postulation is from the perspective of the influence of negative culture on ethical issues in journalism practice. Value systems largely breed conscious journalism practice on corrupt or unethical foundations. It is also possible that positive cultural practices could influence journalism practice premised on professional ethics.
This article discusses the interplay between value systems, news values and professional ethics of journalists in Nigeria. The article explores cultural convictions of journalists and the struggle to adhere to ethical standards in their line of duty. It looks at the journalist as existing in the larger society which not only determines how he lives and what he thinks about but what he values and strives to achieve. This work contributes to the debate on the media and culture by arguing that the cultural environment within which the Nigerian journalist exists and operates which, according to Mfumbasa, is essentially dishonest and corrupt, exerts pressure and often times leads the journalist to go against the ethics of his profession to make money. The paper emphasizes Mfumbasa’s observation concerning the relationship between the media, politics, culture and values, using the Nigerian media environment as an example.
The way people engage in daily transactions, their inspirations and aspirations in life are largely determined by their value system and cultural convictions. How does this postulation relate to journalistic ethics? In what ways do journalists factor in cultural convictions shaped by value system of the society in which they exist, in the discharge of their duties? These are questions this article seeks to answer.
This paper is based on studies on ethics in the media, especially the influence of culture and poverty on journalistic ethics regarding journalists’ attitudes towards corruption. Studies show that poor remuneration (Okoro and Ugwuanyi 2006; Adeyemi and Okorie 2009; Nwabueze, 2010; Mabweazara, 2010) and the media in Africa exist in an atmosphere of politics and a culture that are essentially dishonest and corrupt (Mfumbasa 2008). These exert pressure on the journalist leading to corrupt practices such as acceptance of gratifications from news sources, and willfully not adhering to journalistic ethics. This work establishes that there exists a relationship between societal pressure and journalistic ethics (Nwabueze, 2010) but argues that the way out is adherence to professional tenets even in the face of challenges and temptations. The journalist ought to realize that there also exists positive values in the society which uphold integrity and credibility, and men of integrity still exist in Nigeria. Engaging in media corruption on the grounds of negative value system is definitely not an excuse. There are also positive cultural values which should be pursued.
Kasoma’s (1999) argument on journalism education as a panacea for professionalism receives credence of this point. Kasoma argued that although practicalizing what was taught in journalism training schools is a different thing all together, journalism education remains essential to professionalism in journalism. His point is that journalists who did not receive journalism training are most likely to fall prey to inducements and temptations to operate unethically either due to negative value system or other factors and this costs media organizations their reputation. Ignorance, Kasoma (1999) argues, is the bedrock of inability to resist extraneous pressures that discourage professionalism:
It is true that knowing about journalistic chores from the classroom is one thing and putting them into practice is another. But it is also true that unless journalists know what they are supposed to do, they cannot be expected to perform accordingly… It is precisely the act of trying to use people who are ignorant of journalism that has cost many independent newspapers in Africa their reputation, credibility and, often their very existence and greatly endangered press freedom on the continent.
Kasoma’s argument on the significant relationship between unprofessionalism and lack of journalism education is to an extent debatable. This is because research evidence has shown that some trained journalists in Nigeria and some other African countries engage in media corruption (acceptance of gratifications or what is commonly referred to as brown envelope) due to various other factors among which is poor remuneration/salaries (Okoro and Ugwuanyi 2006; Adeyemi and Okorie 2009; Nwabueze, 2010; Mabweazara, 2010) and societal value system. However, the argument by Kasoma (1999) could be considered in an effort to ensure professionalism in journalism. Kasoma’s argument receives support from observations by Mpagaze and White (2010) who, after a study of Tanzanian journalists’ perception of their ethics, established the existence of bribery in the media (acceptance of gratifications from news sources). Mpagaze and White (2010) therefore called for better training programme for journalists as one of the ways out of this ethical challenge. They also saw the need to establish clear criteria in news values and in dealing with pressures from news sources, especially in detecting and controlling bribery in journalism, which can be translated into enforced codes of ethics for media houses and better training of journalists to make the media houses’ codes of ethics more effective. This paper shares the view that professionalism premised on better training can contribute immensely in checking corruption in the media.
Conceptual Clarifications: Culture and Value Systems
Values constitute one of the major pillars that give identity to the culture of a people. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines values as beliefs about what is right and wrong and what is important in life. If a people recognize an act or idea as essential in life, such act or idea becomes an accepted norm in the society and invariably translates to acceptable cultural component of the people’s existence.
Values, beliefs and norms are sometimes used interchangeably. However, specific definitions have looked at values as beliefs or what people believe in. Values are core aspects of a people’s culture. What then is culture? The term ‘Culture’ simply refers to the lifestyle a specific people are known for. Culture has variously been defined as manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively, the customs, civilization and achievements of a particular time or people (Sinclair, in Onyeisi 2007: 48); all the material and spiritual characteristics and products of human intelligence acquired from the remote past, in the advancement of humanity (Mbagwu 2007: 64). Culture is also seen as patterns of behaviour and thinking that people living in a social group learn, create, and share (Encata Encyclopedia 2006); the entirety of norms, values, belief systems and life patterns that give a group of people an identity (Nwabueze, 2007: 184); a complex concept that refers to the common values, beliefs, social practices, rules, and assumptions that bind a group of people together (Dominick, 2009: 45). Culture is an important social reality which manifests in various aspects of life – religion, language, technology, sports, education, media, etc.
Life in itself is to an extent, a reflection of a specific culture. Most definitions of culture mention value as a major component of culture. Whether viewed as cultural, moral, social, or educational values, they shape the life of a people. Gemstone (2009: 1) has this to say about values in any society:
Values are the fabric of any society. They influence the beliefs and morals of the people. The values of any nation determine what is important to the people. They influence aspirations, thoughts, words and actions.
Value system, therefore, is an organized, accepted or functional set of common thoughts, words and actions which give a people cultural identity and determine what they cherish and recognize as important. The value system influences aspirations, thoughts, words and actions of a people. The value system cannot be divorced from a people’s culture. It has been described as “a major component of a society’s culture”, that is, ”systems of values and beliefs which are characteristic of that society” (Learning Commons, 2009: 1). Belief/value system significantly influences the culture of a people.
Culture has also been defined as consisting of learned behaviour. Beliefs and values affect virtually every learned behaviour; thus, these systems are a central component of the larger cultural systems in which they exist.” (Learning commons, 2009: 1).
Culture and News Values: The fusion
The basic role of journalism in any society is to inform, educate and entertain. Dominick (2009, p.31) also refers to the information role as the surveillance function of the media. This, he says, is closely related to the interpretation function which consists of providing information on the ultimate meaning and significance of events.
News values are factors considered in determining which event, topic or issue to be covered as news. Journalists use news values to decide what the audience would be interested in. The routine news values are impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, conflict, oddity, and currency. However, the focus here is not just on journalists’ perception of what makes news based on the routine news values mentioned above, but also on the other extraneous factors that inform the criteria for determining news stories. Some of the common criteria for determining “good” news stories are defence of human rights, exposure of social injustices and the need to inform and guide the public (Ogongo-Ongong’a and White 2008: 159). Also considered in determining what makes news are the classic journalistic norms of accuracy, faithfulness to sources, avoidance of economic and political influences and critical loyalty to the news organization and to one’s colleagues (Ogongo-Ongong’a and White, 2008, p. 159). These factors – routine news values, and classic journalistic norms – influence the shaping of news template by journalists.
News values as used in the context of this article consist of what journalists generally consider in determining what makes news, what forces influence what should be given prominence, or what should be considered timely, what should be treated as current, or what should be treated or selected as proximity–based news story. The news value concept here also includes the criteria considered in seeking out stories or picking out the important aspects of a story. For instance, after a study of young journalists in Kenya (Ogongo-Ongang’a and White 2008) found that the following factors shape the news values of the studied young journalists – setting the agenda for personal and public decision making, educating the public regarding their rights, representing the views of the excluded, contributing to social and political reform, and providing information for critical and discerning voting. These are the criteria upon which the young journalists decide what should be given prominence, what should be considered current or timely, what proximity-based news should be selected and worked on or which report should be considered based on the impact value.
The interest of this discussion is specifically on how cultural values influence news values in relation to Nigerian journalists. What aspects of culture are considered in shaping the news? The interaction between cultural values and journalism practice cannot be ruled out. The journalist exists in the society which has a cultural identity. There exists an interplay between the journalists and cultural forces in his environment. Mfumbusa (2008: 140) notes that “media professionals in Africa operate in a context marked by the politics and culture of the larger society”. Elliot (cited in Ogongo-Ongong’a and White 2008: 162) observes that “the bases upon which individuals develop value systems are unique and complex combinations of religious beliefs, education, family and cultural norms, individual rationality and consciously or unconsciously accepted conventions of the many subcultures in which one lives”.
Culture is measured in terms of the attitudes, beliefs, norms and values which the people of a nation have and hold on to in general (Aluko 2003). In the Nigerian context, how has cultural value system played out on news values and journalistic norms? The individual cultural convictions of specific journalists and the more general value systems and norms of the society in which the journalists exist and practice their profession possibly exert pressures on the journalists. Such pressures could lead to conflict of interest capable of affecting credibility of the reporter and the profession in general. The pressures could also further encourage professionalism in journalism practice, depending on the perspective of cultural pressure at work on a reporter.
Value System Versus Journalistic Ethics: The Nigerian Experience
Ethics is concerned with what is morally good or bad, right or wrong. A code of ethics is a set of moral principles, guidelines or rules that guide activities of a person or group of persons. This discussion specifically deals with journalistic ethics which is a set of moral principles guiding the practice of journalism. For instance, a journalist is not expected to glorify violence, sex and indecency in his/her report. He/she is not expected to identify relatives or friends of accused persons/crime suspects without their consent. A reporter should not make discriminatory or disapproving remarks about any gender, ethnic group, class of society, religion etc. These are among many ethical issues associated with journalism practice which the journalist is expected to factor into his/her actions in the line of duty.
However, the value system of a society could exert pressure on a journalist and possibly cause the reporter to operate from an unethical pedestal if he/she is not strong enough to resist the culture-induced temptation (Nwabueze, 2010: 499). Also, Hanson (2005: 419) writes that “ being fair and balanced are the core of journalistic values …. At times, however, other factors can overwhelm that value”. The argument being raised here is that cultural values could overwhelm the basic journalistic values of an average Nigerian journalist. Germini de Alwis and Senathiraja (2003) write that work ethics in a society is largely influenced by its culture and it has a direct relationship to its value systems. Cultural values and journalism ethics are constantly at war (Nwabueze 2010: 499). Journalism ethics is played up where a journalist is faced with conflicting values in the society, especially values that are incompatible with tenets of professionalism. Kasoma (1999: 447) notes that journalism ethics is concerned with making sound decisions in journalistic performance, and that it assumes the presence of societal morality. Morality consists of actions guided by generally acceptable human values and responsibilities which, according to Kasoma, constitute a moral system. Human beings subscribe to several moral systems at any point in time and “ethics begins where elements within a moral system conflict, and a person (Journalist) is called upon to choose between various alternatives” (Kasoma 1999: 447).
Inherent in the postulation above is that the journalist is always battling with conflicting norms, values, and interests in the society which derive from the culture within which he exists and the need to foster professionalism in his profession. Professionalism in journalism, in Kasoma’s view, simply means “performing journalistic chores responsibly by following the tenets of the profession whose function lies in disseminating news and informed opinion to the public” (Kasoma, 1999, p.446). A journalist battles with meeting the challenges of living in an environment shaped by a specific culture and the challenges of allowing ethical codes to guide the practice of his/her profession.
Culture has been defined as the totality of way of life evolved by a people in their attempt to meet the challenges of living in their environment which gives order and meaning to their social, political, economic, aesthetic and religious norms and modes of organization, and thus distinguishing them from their neighbours (Emeana 2001: 43). The journalist is part of the society, living in a value system cherished by people in that society.
Today, the culture of corruption has permeated virtually every sphere of life in the Nigerian society, as in some other African countries. After an examination and analysis of Nigerian culture from the perspective of the three major local languages in the country (Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba), Aluko (2003) observes among others that the craze for wealth is high, the culture of corruption has been institutionalized in most work places, and Nigerian workers are largely motivated by monetary rewards. In some parts of Nigeria, success is largely measured by how many houses an individual builds in the cities and the type of house he builds in his village, not minding the source of his wealth. Integrity and moral values play little or no roles in such societies. The emergence and boom of certain weird crimes in Nigeria such as ritual killings and kidnapping largely derive from the value system that seems to glorify unquestionable wealth. Recall that the journalist exists in the same society with the noveux riche, where culture has virtually and gradually accommodated values premised on corruption. The journalist, in order to meet with the challenges of existing meaningfully in such society, finds himself/herself battling with conflicting values – that of the society in which he exists and that of his profession. It looks like negative values tend to override positive values in a decaying, corruption-infested society in Nigeria. While describing the gravity of corrupt value system in the Nigerian society, Dele Momodu, a renowned columnist in Thisday newspaper observed that “even our society frowns at you if you remain as poor as you went into government” (Thisday, November 7, 2009, p.72).
Within the context of the clash between negative societal value system and the attempt by journalists to exist meaningfully in the society, brown envelope syndrome (acceptance of gratifications from news sources) often thrives. Brown envelope syndrome is an unethical issue, although attempts to justify the action exist even among journalists. Some journalists have even taken the brown envelope issue too far; they have resorted to black mail and various forms of extortion in the name of brown envelope syndrome. Aiyetan (2002: 32), quoting Nosa Igiebor of Tell Magazine, condemns the act of collecting gratifications under any guise and describes it as “brazenly demanding bribe from people to publish or kill a story and failing which they resort to black mailing you, blacking you out or out rightly concocting stories that would embarrass you”. Some other factors may be responsible for the growth of brown envelope syndrome but societal value system also plays a pivotal role in perpetrating it. Aiyetan, (2002: 34) refers to the observation by Reuben Abati of the Guardian Newspapers that,
The journalist is also a member of the society and if we agree that we are an exceptionally corrupt society, then the media cannot be innocent. The media is just as corrupt as the society.
It may be suggested that a journalist guided by morals in the line of duty ends up struggling to make ends meet. Studies on corruption in the Nigerian media show that poor remuneration/welfare package are among the basic reasons why journalists accept gratifications (brown envelopes) from news sources (Okoro and Ugwuanyi 2006; Adeyemi and Okorie 2009; Nwabueze 2010). Similarly, while carrying out a study on when your “take home pay” can hardly take you home with regards to the Zimbabwean press, Mabweazara (2010: 433) observes that bad treatment of editors, repressive conditions and poor salaries are undermining the professionalism of journalists not only in Zimbabwe but in many other African countries. “These conditions not only differentiate African journalists from their counterparts in the economically developed world of the North, but also illuminate how the conditions of material deprivation tend to subvert conventionalized ethical canons of journalism such as independence and impartiality” (Mabweazara 2010: 433). Also, Mare and Brand (2010: 408) write that many media organizations operate on shoe-string budgets, and journalists working in African media are poorly remunerated. This invariably means that if journalists do not accept gratifications, their salaries will not be adequate to meet their needs; as a result they will struggle to make ends meet. Where the journalist attempts to get recognized in the society or overcome the challenges of existing in a value system that glorifies corruption, he/she slides into the realm of unethical practices.
The question then is could the journalist have been able to live a decent life if the value system of the society he exists in did not glorify the noveux riche syndrome or the get-rich-at-any-cost syndrome? The fact remains that the quest to make ends meet within the context of the present value system exerts pressure on the journalist and invariably affects news values. The journalist that engages in brown envelope syndrome defines news based on who gives him/her what. Collection of gratification (or brown envelope syndrome), including other forms of unethical practices distort the definition of news. The values used in judging what makes news are defined by what the news source is willing to offer to the journalist. Mfumbusa (2008: 151) asserts that cavalier attitude towards corrupt practices exists in most African newsrooms and that journalists pretend to be objective. Mfumbusa further notes that open remuneration (brown envelopes) that journalists get from political and economic patrons is a prevalent practice, which is largely condoned in the African media circles. This unethical practice seems to have permeated journalism practice in most African nations.
Conclusion: Looking Towards the Future
The interest of this article on Nigeria, with specific focus on how societal value system fosters unethical practice has also examined the link between value system, news values and journalism practice. What possibilities exist on how to get journalists focused on professionalism even in the face of besetting value system that glorifies corruption?
Value re-orientation has become a cliché which now makes little or no meaning to the citizenry. The truth, however, is that value-reorientation remains the the key to a meaningful reversal of the increasing level of corruption in the Nigerian society. Most times, agents of corruption are moved by the urge to meet the challenges of surviving in a society whose value system seems to glorify or condone the get-rich-at-any-cost syndrome. The journalist finds himself/herself struggling to remain socially and financially afloat in such a society in the face of conflicting values – negative societal values and professional values.
Professionalism can hardly thrive on empty stomach. A well paid journalist possesses the possibility of resisting pressures from conflicting values and is likely to uphold the tenets of professionalism more than a poorly paid journalist.
There is also the need for further empirical studies to establish whether there exists a link between value system and news judgment by Nigerian journalists. What has been presented in this article is a qualitative analysis of the topic. A research–based study will establish the degree of relationship, if any, and also reveal specific societal values that exert the most pressure on journalists in the line of duty. The findings will provide empirical facts upon which to base the campaign on value re-orientation for journalists and the need for adherence to journalism ethics/professionalism even in the face of a challenging value system.
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